Often contracted to evade immigration law, “marriages of convenience” have become an increasingly common method by which immigrants have obtained permanent resident status in the United States. Because marriage is a basic social institution, U.S. immigration policy has been designed to keep married people together. Immigrants traveling to the United States have been encouraged to bring their spouses. Other immigrants, however, have found a route to permanent residence and even citizenship through marriages of convenience.
The concept of “marriages of convenience” has given rise to terms such as “sham marriages,” “fraudulent marriages,” and “green card marriages.” In the context of immigration law, all these terms pertain to essentially the same thing: marriages undertaken for the purpose of circumventing legal requirement for obtaining permanent residency status. It should also be understood that such marriages differ from marriages to so-called
Since the mid-twentieth century, U.S. immigration policy has actively championed marriage and family unification as vital to a stable society. However, marriages are not always undertaken to unite couples who are deeply in love and committed to sharing their lives together. In many societies, families join couples together in arranged marriages, promoting unions between people who may not even know each other in advance, but they do not do this to skirt immigration policies. In contrast, marriages of convenience do exactly that.
One of the easiest ways to become a naturalized American citizen has been to marry a citizen to avoid major immigration difficulties. The immigrant spouses do not need to wait for visa numbers or even need labor certificates. Marriage to an American citizen automatically makes an alien eligible for the legal status of a
Arranging sham marriages, which costs an immigrant from two hundred to five thousand dollars, has become a business. In August, 1986, the INS deported the head of a West Coast company that had arranged seventy sham marriages after charging immigrants from three to five thousand dollars for each wedding. Single mothers were particular targets of immigrant seeking “green card marriages.”
Concerned about the increasing numbers of aliens receiving permanent residency status through marriage and convinced that more than one-third of such marriages were fraudulent, Congress enacted the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments (IMFA) on November 10, 1986. This law created a two-year “conditional” permanent residency status for immigrants marrying American citizens. During the ninety days leading up the end of the two-year period, couples were required to submit joint petitions for permanent legal status. So couples could prove their marriages were still valid, INS officials were authorized to make home visits. To verify that couples were living as man and wife, officials interviewed apartment managers, employers, friends, and neighbors. They also interviewed the spouses themselves–separately–asking questions about their weddings, division of household chores, home furnishings and decor, and other matters to see whether the couples were cohabiting. Although instructed not to do, some INS officials have asked intimate questions about the couples’ relationships. These interviews have led to a number of law suits about invasion of privacy. When investigators determine that a marriage is fraudulent, they may rescind the immigrant partner’s permanent resident status or citizenship,order the immigrant’s
The magnitude of the sham-marriage problem was so great during the 1980’s that television’s Nightline program broadcast a special on the subject in August, 1985. The program featured an interview with Senator Alan Simpson, the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration. Sham marriages have also been treated lightly in the media. The 1990 film
Although marriages of convenience may be treated humorously in fiction, the reality has been less than comic. The sham-marriage business has continued to thrive into the twenty-first century, arranging marriages for immigrants for hefty fees and coaching couples on how to respond to official immigration investigations. The news media are filled stories about marriage-fraud rings. Immigrants seeking marriages and the “green cards” come from all over the world. With many aliens willing to pay thousands of dollars for marriages, American citizens in desperate need of money may find sham marriages tempting.
Chau-Eoan, Howard G. “Tightening the Knot.” Time, December 15, 1986, 35. Brief discussion of how the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986 were expected to be tougher on marriage fraud. Farrell, Mary H. J. “For Immigrants Trying to Obtain the Coveted Green Card, Marriage May Be a Treacherous Strategy.” People Weekly, February 25, 1991, 93-96. Story that includes examples of green card marriages. Glasser, Jeff. “The Benefits of Marriage.” U.S. News & World Report, April 2, 2001, 18. Article showing how a new law may actually promote marriage fraud. Lopez, Elena Maria. “Marriage Fraud.” USA Today, April 7, 2006, p. 13A. Discusses the ease, through marriage, of getting permanent access to the United States. Pear, Robert. “In Bureaucracy, Aliens Find Another Unprotected Border.” The New York Times, October 19, 1986. Statistics show the increase in marriages as a way to enter the United States.
Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.
Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
Permanent resident status